- Associated Press - Monday, September 12, 2016

Selected editorials from Oregon newspapers:

The (Medford) Mail Tribune, Sept. 11, on expanding a national monument near Ashland:

Backers of a proposed expansion of the Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument east of Ashland have a good case to make when it comes to the environmental benefits of protecting the unique landscape and the flora and fauna it harbors. But the notion that expanding the boundaries would lead to a measurable boost in tourism is a stretch at best.

President Bill Clinton created the existing 53,000-acre monument in 2000, after months of strenuous debate and stiff opposition from ranchers, timber interests and others. The borders have not changed since, although owners of private land within the monument have willingly sold about 13,000 acres to the federal government.

The Bureau of Land Management is in charge of administering the monument, the first time the agency has been given that task. The monument designation means commercial logging is prohibited unless it enhances the ecology, mining banned and off-road vehicle use is not allowed. Other forms of recreation - hunting, fishing, hiking, horseback riding and mushroom gathering - continue to be permitted.

The monument is unique in that it is the intersection of four distinct bioregions, a land bridge linking the Cascade and Siskiyou mountain ranges and their plant and animal species, including some that exist nowhere else on earth. That is good reason to protect it, and we supported the monument’s initial creation.

It may well be a good thing to expand the monument to include entire watersheds - something it does not do now - and to follow bird and animal habitat boundaries rather than arbitrary ones such as the California border. That’s a debate worth having.

But a decision to expand should be made based on what’s best for the environment, not on some hypothetical increase in tourism dollars based on wishful thinking. The monument is not a tourist destination in the same sense that, say, the Oregon Caves National Monument is, nor is it likely to become one.

Hikers, birders and anglers may visit the monument, and those who come to the region for Shakespeare, rafting or other pursuits may well add a side trip to hike or fish in the monument. But it’s unlikely to be the primary reason they came here in the first place.

Environmental preservation activists have long argued that “eco-tourism” can replace revenue once derived from logging, but there is little evidence the dollars are comparable.

Beyond that, this expansion proposal comes late in President Obama’s term in office, and proponents are clearly hoping he can be convinced to use his power under the Antiquities Act to approve it on his way out the door, just as Bill Clinton did in 2000.

But the initial monument designation was heavily debated for months, with considerable public input. The expansion has not had the same exposure to to public, and it should.

Protection of public land can be beneficial, but it is also permanent, and it deserves a full airing.

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The (Salem) Statesman Journal, Sept. 10, on the impact of Measure 97:

Here’s a question for you: Should Oregonians fundamentally change our economy by taking $3 billion a year from private businesses and giving that money to state government?

That is the basic question underlying Measure 97, which voters will decide at the Nov. 8 election.

Another way of phrasing that question is this: Should Oregon create thousands of government jobs by eliminating thousands of private-sector jobs?

The question deserves more attention than it is receiving. Maybe that’s because Measure 97 is so complicated and raises so many issues.

For example, Friday’s presenters at the Salem City Club debate - Tonia Hunt, executive director of Children First for Oregon, in favor of the tax increase, and Sandra McDonough, president and CEO of the Portland Business Alliance, opposing the tax - touched on a number of areas.

As audience members said afterward, it was refreshing to hear a civil debate instead of the mudslinging that has dominated national politics.

Measure 97 would increase the minimum tax on so-called C corporations with more than $25 million in annual Oregon sales. The measure’s wording says the tax receipts would go for schools, health care and senior programs. However, the reality is that the Legislature could change the law and spend the money anyway it wanted.

Because this is a type of sales tax, it could be paid several times down the line.

For example, the Tillamook County Creamery Association, which opposes the measure, is among the businesses expected to pay the higher tax. Tillamook sells its cheese, ice cream and other products through distributors, who also would pay the higher tax if they do more than $25 million in annual Oregon sales to grocery stores and other outlets. Grocery-store companies - including some well-known Oregon companies - that sold the Tillamook products also would pay the higher tax if their annual sales topped the $25 million threshhold.

Grocers are a good example of the economic effects, because they operate on thin margins. To stay competitive with similar stores, they cannot always raise prices when their costs - such as taxes - go up. They have to save money elsewhere, such as by reducing jobs.

In fact, a study commissioned by supporters of Measure 97 indicates that it would create more than 33,000 government jobs during the next 10 years while eliminating more than 13,000 private-sector jobs.

Opponents cite the nonpartisan Legislative Revenue Office’s study, which says Measure 97 would cost 38,000 private-sector jobs. Prices also would go up, according to that study, costing the average Oregon household more than $600 a year.

Those statistics are illustrative of the battle lines for the measure. It was written and supported by public-employee labor unions, which presumably would gain membership through government job growth, and their allies. It is opposed by many businesses, chambers of commerce and trade groups.

Each side has analyses and testimonies to support its position. But a basic question remains for voters: Does it serve Oregon’s economic future to increase public jobs at the expense of private jobs?

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The (Albany) Democrat-Herald, Sept. 11, on the grand opening of OSU’s Cascades campus:

On Tuesday, Oregon State University will hold a grand opening at its growing Cascades campus in Bend to mark the completion of the new Tykeson Hall.

It’s another important milestone for OSU, as it builds a four-year university in central Oregon. It’s important as well for that region, which has battled for decades to have a four-year institution.

The growth of the Bend campus also is important for the mid-valley, but perhaps for less obvious reasons.

The Cascades campus has become increasingly important to OSU not just in its own right, but as part of the university’s overall strategy to manage enrollment, in particular at its Corvallis campus.

You might recall the reaction in Corvallis back in 2009, when OSU President Ed Ray outlined what would be necessary for OSU to become one of the nation’s top 15 land-grant universities. One of the attributes that went along with that goal, Ray said, was that OSU would have an enrollment of between 30,000 and 35,000 students.

At the time, enrollment at OSU was just under 22,000, although it had boomed an astonishing 8 percent from the year before.

The rate of enrollment increase on the Corvallis campus has cooled off since then. Total enrollment last fall was 30,592, with 24,466 students on the Corvallis campus. The university’s campuses in Bend and Newport, along with its online classes, made up the difference.

OSU thinks it still has room for growth in Corvallis, but is projecting essentially flat enrollment on its home campus this fall. (A proviso: These enrollment numbers are notoriously hard to predict, even through the first few weeks of school.)

OSU officials say they plan to cap enrollment at the Corvallis campus at 28,000, but now think that mark might not be reached until 2030 or so. But by that time, the hope is that the Cascades campus has 3,000 to 5,000 students (it had about 1,000 last fall). The school’s Newport campus could have 500 students by that time, OSU officials say, and the hope is that the university’s online offerings will attract somewhere between 7,000 and 10,000 students - students who show up in Corvallis only to cram into Reser Stadium for graduation.

If those predictions pan out, it could lead to an OSU with more than 40,000 students, but with only about 70 percent of the student body in Corvallis. It’s an interesting notion to ponder. And it’s also worth noting, as an aside, that there is a big difference between housing 24,000 OSU students in the mid-valley and housing 28,000.

It’s also worth wondering to what extent the state will be willing and able to properly fund what amounts to another four-year public university. OSU-Cascades is essentially becoming Oregon’s eighth four-year university.

Although legislators have embraced the Bend campus, they also face tighter budgets, which include increasing bills from the state’s Public Employees Retirement System.

Steve Clark, the university’s vice president for university relations and marketing, says the idea isn’t just to have another university fighting for a piece of decreasing state funding.

“The worst thing would be that the budget would be divided by eight” instead of seven universities, Clark said last week. “You cannot cut the pie by one more slice. You cannot expect that OSU can fund (Cascades) by itself.”

That’s particularly true, he said, because the relatively new Cascades is not yet able to tap into a deep philanthropic base, the way that older schools like OSU and the University of Oregon can in launching successful billion-dollar fundraising campaigns.

If Cascades is able to grow and prosper, that donor base will deepen over time.

But it won’t happen if the new campus doesn’t get the resources it needs to grow during these critical early years. As Cascades gets ready for its grand opening, that’s the big question mark hanging over the festivities.

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The Bend Bulletin, Sept. 11, on reforming the state Public Employees Retirement System:

Oregon lawmakers will do the state a tremendous disservice if they wimp out on any attempt to reform the state Public Employees Retirement System mess next year. To keep the retirement system financed adequately, nearly every government agency in Oregon will have to pony up substantially more money.

“Substantially” could mean $885 million more in PERS payments than the $2 billion school districts, cities, counties, even library districts will have paid in 2016. Public employers’ retirement commitments will rise by about 44 percent next year, according to The Oregonian.

The Legislature has tried to fix the mess, most recently in 2013, though most of those changes were overturned by the state Supreme Court in April 2015.

Since then, lawmakers, particularly the Democrats who control both houses of the Legislature, and the governor have ignored the problem, or at least their duty to correct it. Instead, they’ve pinned their hopes on hitting taxpayers up for more money with the ill-conceived ballot Measure 97, the hidden sales tax proposal aimed at businesses.

Not all lawmakers, not even all Democrats, are taking such a hands-off approach, however. Two - Sen. Tim Knopp, R-Bend, and Sen. Betsy Johnson, D-Scapoose - are creating the bipartisan PERS Solutions Work Group, with a first meeting set for Sept. 21 in Salem. The pair believe that, crafted carefully, a constitutional solution to the PERS problem can be found. Those interested in attending the September meeting or becoming a member of the working group can contact Knopp’s office at [email protected] or Johnson’s office at [email protected]

We wish them success. Knopp and Johnson agree that any solution which cuts checks to current PERS retirees is almost certain to be overturned. Instead, they hope to focus on other things that reduce the state’s PERS bills over time. That’s as worthy a goal as any we’ve heard from lawmakers in quite some time.

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The (Eugene) Register-Guard, Sept. 7, on health care for Oregon’s low-income residents:

The story of Trillium Community Health Plan should serve as a warning to Oregon of what can go wrong - all within the bounds of the law - when public funds, intended for the public good, are funneled through a for-profit company without adequate controls and accountability.

Trillium was launched about four years ago in Lane County, one of a number of coordinated care organizations that manage health services for low-income and disabled people through the state’s version of Medicaid, the Oregon Health Plan.

When Trillium’s parent company, Agate Resources, was sold to a Fortune 500 company, Centene Corp., last year for $109 million, it raised eyebrows, questions and a whole lot of concerns.

Chief among these was whether Agate’s owners - who included prominent local business people and physicians - were reaping hefty profits at the expense of almost 100,000 poor and disabled Lane County residents in need of health care.

An investigation by reporter Sherri Buri-McDonald has determined that Trillium patients were suffering from a lack of health care services at a time when Trillium’s owners were socking away millions of dollars in cash reserves, an attraction for anyone interested in buying the company.

Meanwhile, patients were complaining of problems getting a primary care provider and needed services such as medical tests. therapy and referrals to specialists, such as mental health providers. Some were ending up in local emergency rooms for treatment - the poorest choice from both a financial and continuing care perspective.

Trillium’s owners have said they were beefing up cash reserves to meet state standards and to protect against increased costs from a surge of new patients. But taxpayers and Medicaid patients have no way of knowing if this is accurate; state regulators won’t discuss it.

In addition to the money being funneled into cash reserves, shareholders in the parent company also awarded themselves dividends totaling $22 million shortly before the sale of Agate to Centene.

All of this was acceptable under state regulations, which put no limits on how much profit a CCO could make - or how little could be spent on patient care.

That is changing as of this year - CCOs will now be required to spend at least 80 percent of the Medicaid money they receive on actual health care for the patients, increasing to 85 percent in 2018, but the remainder can be spend on pretty much whatever the CCO wants, including dividends to the owners.

Nor are there any severe penalties - such as cancellation of a contract - for a CCO that doesn’t meet the state’s benchmarks for the services it provides. Instead the state provides financial incentives to encourage CCOs to improve their performance, incentives they can collect even if they still end up below the state’s benchmarks for patient care.

This handful of changes still leaves far too little oversight and accountability for Oregon’s CCOs - and not enough protection for the people who rely on them for health care and for the taxpayers who foot the bill.

We previously have suggested a cap on profits for CCOs in Oregon as one option. State Rep. Mitch Greenlick, D-Portland, takes it a step further, arguing CCOs should be nonprofits. This is an idea worth exploring, as is his proposal that CCOs’ cash reserves be deposited in the state treasury.

CCOs were well-intended, and their problems are most likely fixable. But they must be fixed to provide more accountability and controls. There is too much taxpayer money at stake and, more importantly, the health and well-being of too many vulnerable Oregonians.

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